How I learned to sew

I learned to sew initially by taking a summer enrichment course after 7th grade. As a way to keep us busy in the summer, I took sewing and photography (but the photography didn’t take) and my brother took photography and math (I think? ). Years later, I have returned to sewing time and again, and after a time as a research professor in psychology, my brother is now a professional photographer.

Perhaps there’s a social research idea in that, how the passions of our early teens plant seeds for the future. I started learning the instrument I majored in during college that year.

In any case, that was the last formal instruction I had. My mother’s use of sewing in her life was more utilitarian. Her mother sewed and so did my dad’d mother. In fact, when each of them died, my aunts on each side passed along all their sewing “stuff” to me. I have a great start on a button collection, and as I did a decent job of storing thread, I rarely have to buy thread when I get a wild hair on a project. I use one grandmother’s thread, another grandmother’s tailor’s ham and cutting board.

In the many many years since that initial summer sewing class, I’ve been self taught. And this is what I’m trying to change this time around. In college, I ended up as the dorm sewing fixer/sorority costume/formal dress fixer. To young to be able to admit the “I don’t know” I reveled in the one my friends turned to for help. I made my own performance clothes for the orchestra, designed costumes for rush, and installed straps on strapless dresses.

A young marriage and distractions put it aside for a while. I remember buying Christmas stocking patterns and not realizing how flipping big they were. They became a family joke, but then fun as we all said, “all you have to do is fill the stocking”. I’m not sure that was continued after that marriage ended.

In between husbands, I moved to a new state, and began to sew again. I made dresses and a trench coat (that Istill can’t believe I pulled off) and tried to make a men’s blazer for my dad (which made him look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or at least of Tacoma, WA). I didn’t know about indie pattern companies, indie fabric stores, I purchased Big 4 patterns, and then felt that it was my fault if they didn’t fit or if the fabric choices were limited. I was of the opinion that I could read, so I could follow the instructions, even if I didn’t understand them, and I would just wing it.

All this time I figured that if I didn’t fit the pattern, I just needed to work harder at losing the weight, or doing the weight machines or walking/running/biking more.

Finally returning to the greatest city on earth (you’re supposed to know that’s Chicago), I met THE GUY, married him, had the toddler, and wanted to return to sewing. And I realized that I wanted to learn how to do it correctly this time. And so I found myself in this most fortunate time, with online tutorials galore, SEWALONGS!!! (Seriously, great fun!) well written blogs and INDIE PATTERN companies. I want to hang out at Colette Patterns (do you think they would let me if I offered to help sweep up fabric scraps for free?) and touch ALL the fabric at, and pet Swatch at Mood.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m learning how to do it all the right way. Pre-treating fabric like a boss! Understitching, Top stitching. Twin needle stitching. My mother in law gave me her never used SERGER. Seriously, I am thinking of composing bad teenage love poetry to that machine. My parents upgraded my sewing machine for my recent birthday, and I was so giddy, I couldn’t believe it. I called them giggling.

But the best parts have been how sewing has helped my brain and my body. I’ve always been the type of person who can’t shut off the brain, who can’t get back to sleep when things are on my mind. My rediscovered passion for sewing gives my brain a place to “park”. As I lie down to nap with my son, I quiet my mind thinking of my current project and my next step. Visualizing the assembly of the collar, going through my mental catalog of the fabric stash for the next dress, all gives me calm and I can be quiet for my son to go to sleep. My body and I are still making friends. I’m still battling years of negative body image, but I am looking at my measurements with a cold dispassionate eye more and more, and it’s just a matter of, “ok, I need this much fabric to make that body part covered. Ok. got it.” and not “OH GOOD LORD! THIS PATTERN COMPANY THINKS I’M A SIZE 87 AND THIS MEANS I’M A TERRIBLE PERSON”

The mental exercise of adjusting patterns and garments to truly fit me is now an engineering puzzle, not a self shaming defeat, admitting that I really should not have enjoyed that wine and pizza with friends while watching a Blackhawks game. Because wine and pizza and the ‘Hawks are why we have life. And our friends love us no matter what our pants size, or else why are they our friends? So make the clothes fit you dammit.



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